By Alice Thorson
The Kansas City Star.
A year ago former Hallmark designer Tammy Smith came up with the idea to create a print series inspired by cities and their best-known landmarks, beginning with Kansas City. Now her Tammy Smith Design line of prints, tea towels, pillows, cutting boards, totes and note cards has taken off, and in addition to her city designs she has added two fun sets of portraits, featuring “Famous Bohemians” and “Famous Babes.”
Q: What’s your background?
A: I worked at Hallmark 20 years. I’m self-taught, and they trained me, putting me with artists. That’s how I learned. I left five years ago and started a business called Homemade Circus, making wire and clay sculptures that I showed on the art fair circuit. Last January, I launched Tammy Smith Design. I formed a line of products and launched them last May at the National Stationery Show in New York, which I used to attend for Hallmark.
Q: What got you started?
A: I started working and realized that city stuff was on the upswing. I love my city, and I love architecture. I started doing wire sculptures of different cities. The Kansas City design shows the Performing Arts Center, the Country Club Plaza, the Sky Stations, the World War I Museum, the Nelson-Atkins and Union Station, and also motifs alluding to jazz and barbecue. Two of the KC pillows are now on the set of “Kansas City Live” on KSHB (TV).
Q: What’s the process?
A: The basis of my designs are sketches in wire that I mount on blank canvas. I photograph them and then digitize them. It sounds odd, but I worked for years on the computer, and everything gets too perfect too fast. The hand of the artist is what I wanted.
Q: So how did the line develop?
A: It started off as just prints, and Steve Kraske (a Kansas City Star columnist), who is my neighbor, put the Kansas City print on Facebook. Several women who saw it said, ‘I would buy that if it were a tea towel,’ and so I started making them. They sold like crazy through my website and local shows like Strawberry Swing, Chick Events, and the Gypsy Market Royale in the Bauer Event Space (the former Arts Incubator building) on First Fridays. Then people began requesting tablecloths and stitch kits.
Q: What is a stitch kit?
A: My original idea for Tammy Smith Design was stitch kits. They come with a front pillow cover and two skeins of thread and easy instructions. I put in dotted lines for stitchers to follow. I wanted people to be able to exercise their own creativity.
Q: So prints, stitch kits, tea towels, tablecloths, anything else?
A: My designs are also printed on tote bags, tempered-glass cutting boards, note cards and note pads. One of the places I’m selling the note pads is SouveNEAR, the art vending machine in Terminal B at Kansas City International Airport. They’re priced at $8.
Q: What’s the price point on some of the other items?
A: The tea towels go for $24. The stitch kits are $20 to $24. For a set of 10 note cards, two each in five designs, the price is $22.50.
Q: You’ve expanded the line well beyond that initial Kansas City design.
A: I branch out depending on what shows I’m doing. I went to the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, so I did a Chicago line, and I’ve also done a St. Louis line, with the Gateway Arch and other well-known sights. I do look up the top five to 10 landmarks before I start. My son Murphy is in jazz studies at KU (University of Kansas), so I did a Lawrence (Kan.), one, and next I’ll do Manhattan, Kan., and Columbia because of requests. I’ve also developed state pillows and posters inspired by ceramic state plates. I thought they would be a fun update.
Q: Do you do all this yourself?
A: I do the prints myself and have the paper goods printed locally. The fabric printing is done out of town. I have three seamstresses and another girl who cuts fabric, and high school students who help fill orders.
Q: So business is booming?
A: I’m in 25 stores around the country. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art store bought all of my line: stitch kits, posters and pillows of Kansas City, and also my “Famous Bohemians” line that includes Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Toulouse Lautrec and my “Famous Babes.”
Q: Who are the Famous Babes?
A: Women I thought were standouts for being fearlessly themselves: Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra, Pocahontas and Queen Victoria. I do tons of research. I pull up as many as 25 photos of a given subject and look at them. Then I put them aside and do my own portrait.
Q: What’s next?
A: I want to add a Southern section to my city line, so I’ll start work on New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas and Nashville. I just did a state pillow for Arizona, because I’m heading to the National Needle Arts Association conference and show.. I do a lot of shows.
You can order Tammy Smith Design items at TammySmithDesign.com